WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT?

Charles Day*
www.desmoinesmeditation.org & click above on “More from this Publisher”

“Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness,” by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, is a detailed how-to manual for implementing in everyday life Buddha’s Eightfold Path, the path to the end of suffering, the path to enlightenment. Buddha said he taught only the causes of suffering and how to end it, how to realize our already innate enlightened nature. And he cautioned that his teachings should be considered guidelines, not commandments, to be tried and used, if they worked, and discarded, if they didn’t. In that spirit, if what is said hereafter is useful, fine; if not, discard it. This essay is not about the many practices that can be done to facilitate spiritual growth or to elaborate on the Eightfold Path to realizing enlightenment. Bhante Gunaratana does an unparalleled job of that. What I’d like to share are some random thoughts about that enigmatic and exalted state of experience called enlightenment. We all occasionally have glimpses and experiences of enlightenment, experiences of awe and grandeur in observing a sunset or listening to a symphony, of unconditional love for a partner or newborn baby, of gratitude in surviving an illness or accident, and of pure joy in just being alive. But we rarely recognize these glimpses as reflecting our enlightened nature because our illusory ego, which is what we have been socialized and conditioned to identify with, takes credit for them. And the experiences are so wonderful that we try to get them again on a more sustained and even permanent basis. The irony, from a Buddhist perspective, is that our efforts to become enlightened only impede the realization that we already are. So, what is enlightenment? It is, according to Buddha, the end of suffering. Physical pain is still experienced but it is no longer compounded by worries and fears, by mental suffering, which has ended. Enlightenment is the ability to see things as they really are, to accept that what is is, and to say “yes” to all of life. This is done, not
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out of naivete or denial, but out of a profound realization of the selfless, interconnected, interdependent unity and oneness of all mental and physical phenomena, of all experience. For most of us full enlightenment comes gradually as a developmental and cumulative process of growing spiritually through steps and stages. And it happens through grace, rather than by any egoic effort to attain it, because it involves transcendence, surrender, and ultimate dissolution of the ego in order to realize it. Mystics and masters of all religions agree, however, that we can set up conditions that open us to the probability of realizing enlightenment or union with God. We do this through meditation, prayer, and other spiritual practices. study of scriptures, associating with respected teachers and with other spiritual seekers, and living a moral, mindful life. There are examples of an instantaneous and radical transformation into full enlightenment, such as that reported by Eckhart Tolle, but they are relatively rare. The iconoclastic eighth century Chinese Zen Buddhist Huang Po taught that full enlightenment, in fact, comes only “in a flash,” and that in studying and working through stages “you will have added nothing to it at all.” Gradual approaches involving rites, rituals, and study, he maintains, while they may have value intellectually, only perpetuate the desire to attain something we already are, thus reinforcing our ignorance and delusion and impeding the realization of our already enlightened nature. Expressing the essence of Zen, he said, “If you can only rid yourselves of conceptual thought, you will have accomplished everything.” (“The Zen Teaching of Huang Po,” translated by John Blofeld, pp 33-35). It has been said that spiritual growth is a process of finding out not who we are but who we are not and always thought ourselves to be. Ordinarily we experience ourselves as a body/mind organism, as our thoughts, feelings, and values, the roles we play, and our past experiences and future aspirations. But these are not who we are. They do comprise what we call our ego or sense of self, but this, according to Buddha, is an illusion because it has no substantive
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reality, no independent and autonomous existence, and is always changing. Nothing, no thing, exists independent of anything else. And every body, every mind, every thing is continuously changing. It is our inability to recognize and accept the reality of selflessness and impermanence that causes so much suffering and dissatisfaction. Eckhart Tolle (“Power of Now”), Willigis Jager (“Mysticism for Modern Times”), and Bhante Gunaratana (“Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness”) all describe the ego as a convenient conceptual myth, as an operating principle that facilitates functioning in the world of duality or what we call commonly call “reality.” Momentary or sustained enlightenment happens when we transcend and let go of our identification and attachment to the dualistic attributes that constitute our ego or sense of self and realize that we are instead the non-dualistic source, out of which these identifications and all dualistic mental and physical phenomena arise. Buddhism calls this the realization of “emptiness.” On the relative level of form, emptiness refers to the reality that all form is interconnected and thus empty of an independent self. And on an absolute level, it refers to the emptiness even of form, to the pure consciousness or awareness out of which dualistic space, time, and form arise. The paradox inherent in conceptualizing dualism and non-dualism, form and formlessness, is captured exquisitely by the common Zen expression: “Emptiness is form and form is emptiness.” Enlightenment is living fully and mindfully in the present moment, realizing that the present moment is all there ever was, is, or will be. It is the experience of the present moment as perfect, not in any judgmental sense, but because it is the inevitable result of the interaction of all previous causes and conditions and could be no other way. The past and future are just thoughts in the mind, occasionally very useful and practical, but generally redundant, unnecessary, and all too often lead to destructive actions. Enlightenment has also been described as realizing that all experience happens, not only in the present moment, but that it happens only in the abstract, insubstantial mind.
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The revered Tibetan Buddhist Master, Sogyal Rinpoche (“Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying”) put it this way: “The still revolutionary insight of Buddhism is that life and death are in the mind, and nowhere else. Mind is revealed as the universal basis of experience —the creator of happiness and the creator of suffering, the creator of what we call life and what we call death.” Another statement worth repeating about enlightenment or realization, as it is generally called in Hinduism, appears in the Vedanta Upanishads: “Eye cannot see It, tongue cannot utter It, mind cannot grasp It. There is no way to learn or to teach it. It is different than the known and beyond the unknown. In this all the ancient Masters agree.” The first verse of the Tao Te Ching expresses it this way: “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” (“Tao Te Ching,” translated by Stephen Michell). A few remarks are in order about enlightenment expressed as the capacity to simply accept that what is is, and that suffering results from wanting it to be different that the way it is. This definitely should not be confused with approving of what happens or being passive, indifferent, or insensitive to the reality of the need for action or change. It means accepting the way it is without reacting negatively. It means letting go of the negative reactions that arise, so that one's energy is not wasted in emotional reactivity to what can't be changed, since it's already happened, or worrying about a future that has not yet arrived. Accepting the way it is enables one to respond to any suffering or need for action with greater clarity of thinking and greater compassion. For most of us, getting even close to experiencing this level of accepting that what is is takes lots of practice, especially of nonjudgmental patience. Historically the best forms of practice have been regular meditation or prayer and mindful living. The Serenity Prayer used in alcohol and other addiction programs, whether recited as a petitionary prayer to God or as an affirmation of one’s thoughts and intentions, expresses this goal very well:

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“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The Indian philosopher J. Khrisnatmurti said it very simply when he was asked his secret to living so peacefully. He said: "I don't mind what happens." Accepting that what is is, is a quintessential expression of our already enlightened nature. Again, it should be emphasized that compassion is the natural and spontaneous result of genuinely accepting the way it is. It has been said that the greatest paradox is the willingness and ability to accept the way it is while striving compassionately to make ones “self” and the world the best it can be. It behooves us all to make the best of it, to live together in community, harmoniously. and compassionately, and to love one another. This is the ultimate expression of God’s will, of enlightenment, of the end of suffering. And it results, not from the desire to selfishly satisfy or pleasure ones self or someone else, but from the realization that there is no difference between us, that I am you and you are me. To paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 25:40: “Whatsoever you do unto others, even unto the least of your brethren, you do unto yourself.” It has been said the “God looks through six billion pairs of eyes.” We are all one, appearing as individuated manifestations of a continuously unfolding, unified interdependent whole. Unfortunately, we suffer and cause so much suffering because we live under the delusion of separateness. In conclusion, I’d like to share a story told by Ajahn Sumedo, an American monk who studied in Thailand with the revered Buddhism master Ajahn Chah. Sumedo tells about a fellow monk from Germany admired for his brilliant intellect and intense devotion to Ajahn Chah. So, when Sumedo encountered his German friend years later on a trip through Europe, he was quite shocked to find that he had forsaken Buddhism. He had disrobed as a monk, embraced Christian fundamentalism, and professed the sincere belief that only those who were born again in Jesus would go to heaven.

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When Sumedo later visited Ajahn Chah in Thailand, he told him what happened to his formerly devoted student and asked him to explain what could possibly have gone wrong to make him want to convert to Christian fundamentalism. Ajahn Chah’s response was simple and immediate: “Maybe he’s right.” He did not play into Sumedo’s efforts to try to figure it out or reinforce his negative judgments about what his friend had done or about the implied superiority of one religious form over another. Ajahn Chah’s response represents an exquisite reflection by a master teacher of what Zen calls “don’t know” mind, of complete calm and comfort in accepting whatever happens in life, and of the enlightened capacity to acknowledge and transcend dualistic judgement and thinking. Hindu mystics describe the universe we experience as “lila” or the play of consciousness and the way we ordinarily experience ourselves and the world as “maya” or the illusion that everything is separate, substantial, and real. These ancient observations parallel those of modern science. Relativity theory and quantum mechanics tell us that everybody and everything is fundamentally nothing, no thing, just interconnected patterns of energy manifesting in constantly changing forms. These forms appear to us as separate entities because we are neurologically incapable of perceiving directly the underlying interconnected subatomic web of all reality. And we are conditioned to view these forms or appearances as separate, independent, and autonomous, the illusion that is finally shattered when full enlightenment is realized, according to the mystics. In summary we are already enlightened, even if we don’t recognize it. And what is is. Life is just a play of consciousness in which each of us is simultaneously the playwright, the director, and all of the characters. So, lets enjoy playing our part, the part we call “me,” “myself,” and “I”, in this marvelous, infinitely complicated, unpredictable, and mysterious phenomenon called life. Let us intentionally recognize and acknowledge our glimpses of enlightenment, those moments, whether brief or sustained, when we experience selfless splendor, grandeur, awe, unconditional love, humility, gratitude, generosity, compassion, appreciative joy,
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equanimity, and the oneness and perfection of the universe. These are the experiences that reflect transcendence of the sense of a separate self or ego and surrender to the will of God or to the unfolding mystery of the universe. These are the experiences that are accompanied by the peace that surpasses understanding, by the tranquility, bliss, and joy of enlightenment. ______________________________________________ *Charlie Day is a retired psychologist who teaches meditation and Buddhism in Des Moines, IA. He can be contacted at 515-255-8398, charlesday1@mchsi.com, or www.desmoinesmeditation.org. A version of this essay was presented to an Interfaith Book Club in February 2009 after discussing for several weeks “Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness” by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana.

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